For some of us, the off-road lifestyle has been ingrained in our DNA since the day we were born. Our earliest memories involve exploring our family’s property with Grandpa on his trusty side-by-side, and we’ve been driving one of our own since we could barely reach the pedals.
For others, we were introduced to the magic of off-roading later in life. No matter how old we were when it happened, as soon as we got our hands on our first side-by-side, we knew right away that we had found our new favorite passion.
It doesn’t matter if you’re into leisurely drives around the farm or pedal-to-the-metal adventures, or whether off-roading is a weekend pastime or a professional career. However you ride, we all have one thing in common—a love and appreciation for exploring the outdoors from behind the wheel of our favorite UTV.
But have you ever stopped to wonder what those rides looked like before you came around? How did off-roading become such a massive phenomenon, and what did people ride before the RZR, Maverick, and Pioneer came into existence?
They say you can’t see where you’re going until you know where you come from. Since we’re pretty excited to see what the off-roading community will look like five, ten, or twenty years from now, we figure it’s important to take a second and look back at how we got to where we are now.
Before we get too far into it, let’s talk about what defines a UTV. These vehicles go by many names—UTVs, recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs), side-by-sides—but they all have these features in common:
No matter what you call them, these machines all serve the same purpose. They’re here to help us have fun, chase thrills, and experience nature in a totally unique way.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when UTVs rode onto the scene because their coming into being wasn’t a sudden happening. These machines weren’t just spoken into existence—they evolved from what came before. Modern UTVs have come to be unique and groundbreaking in their own right, but the earliest models were influenced by other vehicles—some of which are obvious and others, not so much.
Here are some of the vehicles we have to thank for our modern-day rides:
The earliest-model Jeeps were designed at the onset of World War II, after the US Army reached out to over one hundred companies requesting a working prototype of a 4WD recon car. Only a handful of companies responded to the request, and the result—the Willys Quad, or the first Jeep-brand side-by-side—was delivered to the US Army on Veterans Day in 1940.
Although ownership of the Jeep brand has changed hands several times over the years, its fundamental qualities have remained the same. Jeeps are known for their rugged style and off-road capabilities, and they’ve been widely imitated around the world, inspiring the creation of vehicles such as the Land Rover and—you guessed it—UTVs.
Dune buggies are recreational vehicles that have wide tires and large wheels—perfect for use on sand dunes, beaches, or desert terrain. The first dune buggy, made by Bruce Meyers and known as the Meyers Manx, was produced from 1964 through 1971. The term “buggy” derives from the fact that the Volkswagen Beetle (“Bug”) was commonly used as the basis for designing these machines. Dune buggies are typically designed with a lighter frame and extra engine power to increase the power-to-weight ratio. They have an open-top design and can either be built from scratch or made by modifying an existing vehicle.
Similar to dune buggies, the sand rail is a lightweight vehicle designed for use on open sand. It’s built by welding steel tubes together and gets its name from the rails that are usually present in the design. Sizes vary from compact one-seaters to larger machines with room for four. Both the sand rail and the dune buggy serve as inspiration for the UTVs of today.
ATVs revved onto the scene in the 1960s, although they looked pretty different from the quads that are sitting in your garage right now. The very first ATV was produced in Toronto, Canada, in the year 1960. Dubbed the Jiger, this amphibious machine boasted 5.5 HP, two engines, six wheels, and the ability to travel on land or water. Marketed as a “Go Anywhere Vehicle,” the Jiger was mass produced from 1965 through 1968, when financial troubles ultimately caused the company to put a halt to production.
Right around the time that the Jiger was nearing the end of its run, a graduate student in Detroit designed the three-wheeled, straddle-ridden Tricart as part of a school project. The student, John Plessinger, sold the patents and design rights to Sperry-Rand New Holland, who manufactured the vehicle commercially for several years to come.
At the same time, Honda was hard at work developing a new product that could sell in the winter, when motorcycle sales slowed down for the year. After coming up with several drafts, they determined that the three-wheel concept far outweighed anything else in wet, snowy, or muddy conditions. In 1969, the world’s first three-wheeler was brought to the US in the form of the US90. It had a 7-HP engine and sold for $595. (They later changed the name to the ATC90, for “All Terrain Cycle.”)
The popularity of ATVs really boomed in the 1970s gas crunch, when people began to use them for farming purposes. The fact that they only used a fraction of the fuel needed for a tractor made them the first choice for farmers everywhere.
From Jeeps to dune buggies to the original ATVs—looking at each of these vehicles, it’s easy to see how their design and utility have influenced today’s UTVs. Thanks to their versatility, compact design, and ability to take you where ordinary cars and trucks can’t, it’s no surprise that the popularity of these vehicles gained traction so quickly.
By the 1980s, demand for ATVs had grown to an all-time high. Outdoor enthusiasts were realizing that they were the perfect machines for both work and play, and companies like Kawasaki, Polaris, Yamaha, and Suzuki had joined Honda in their development of three- and four-wheeled off-road vehicles. This is about the time that UTVs started evolving into what they are now.
That’s not to say that UTVs were nonexistent before the ’80s—they just looked a little different than what we’re used to now. Here are a few of the machines that paved the way for off-roading as we know it.
Although classification can get a little murky, some people credit the Lockley Wrangler, introduced in 1970, as being the world’s first side-by-side. Never heard of it? Don’t worry—neither had we. Even the most seasoned off-road enthusiasts have only vague memories of this machine, because it didn’t stay on the scene for long. What we learned, though, is that it was an amphibious UTV that originally came with a 12-HP motor. It was marketed as an “ASV” (All Season Vehicle) that allowed you to attain speeds of over 50 mph and climb 45-degree slopes.
Six years after the Lockley Wrangler’s heyday, Honda made an impact by releasing the Odyssey, a single-seater that stayed in production for a little over a decade. Boasting a yellow body, black roll bar, and no front bumper, this go kart-esque contraption was powered by a two-stroke, single-cylinder engine and a belt-drive transmission.
In 1981, the Odyssey had been re-released with some aesthetic updates. Mechanically, it was identical to the first generation, but they altered the look by painting it Honda Red and adding a full-cage roll bar. Other additions included shoulder harness padding, headlights mounted on the roll bar, and redesigned steering geometry. Further updates in 1985 gave this machine a 397cc engine, electric start, and independent rear and front suspension, among other upgrades.
While Honda was busy churning out fast and sporty models, Kawasaki recognized a different need that wasn’t being filled—the need for a reliable utility vehicle to ease the burden of hauling cargo or tackling jobs around the farm. The original Mule was introduced in 1988 and featured a 454cc engine, independent suspension at the front and rear, and a locking rear differential. While this was a great solution for agricultural and commercial uses, most outdoor enthusiasts were still seeking machines that were speedier and more cutting edge.
Honda was at it again in 1989, releasing a new single-seater UTV called the Honda Pilot. This machine sported some features that still seem innovative (or maybe just weird) today, such as an aircraft-like steering device with throttle and brake controls built right into it. There were also built-in wrist restraints, to keep your arms safely inside the vehicle in case of a rollover. (Imagine being handcuffed to your steering wheel and you’ve kind of got the right idea.) The Pilot had a better-looking chassis than the Odyssey and also featured a full roll cage and a powertrain similar to what can be found in almost every modern UTV.
Unfortunately, its popularity didn’t last long. The $6,000 price tag proved to be a little too much for the average rider, and the single seat didn’t really fit into a culture that was quickly becoming centered on community. Riders were more into sharing the off-road experience with a buddy, as opposed to embarking on solo adventures.
Speaking of the off-road experience, the back end of the 1980s is when UTVs started to find their stride in terms of popularity and culture. As more UTV styles became available and prices became slightly more pocketbook friendly, more and more people began to realize how side-by-sides connected them with nature in a way that no other vehicle could. By the 1990s, outdoor enthusiasts all over the country were using UTVs for both recreation and utility.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s, though, that we really saw the off-road phenomenon explode. Yamaha released the Rhino in 2004 and it quickly earned the reputation of being one of the industry’s most versatile UTVs. It had a cargo bed large enough to haul equipment and supplies, but was also small enough to maneuver through densely-wooded areas. These features, along with a powerful engine and faster top speed, appealed to riders seeking both thrills and utility. The Rhino stayed in production through 2013, and many of us still have one of these classic staples in our garage today.
A few years after the Rhino’s debut came the very first Polaris RZR. Originally dubbed the Ranger RZR and marketed as a sub-model of the work-oriented Ranger, Polaris eventually dropped the “Ranger” part of its name when they realized they had created a machine powerful and popular enough to be its own standalone model. The RZR is credited as being the world’s original sport UTV, and it’s only continued to grow in popularity over the years.
Today, riding isn’t just a hobby done in isolation—it’s a lifestyle. Riding clubs and parks have popped up not just across the US, but all over the world. Annual races, shows, and events attract tens of thousands of off-road enthusiasts, many of them traveling from far away to experience the thrills and sense of community they provide. Now more than ever, UTVs are bringing people together and connecting riders from all over the world.
After giving an overview of some of the most influential and formative UTVs throughout history, it would be nice to end this article with a list of the best models of today. That’s much easier said than done, though, because how do you quantify the “best” of something that’s so personal? The perfect UTV depends on so many factors, like where you ride (woods or dunes?) and what you use it for (recreation or work?). You also need to consider what kind of adventure you’re after—do you prefer flying down the hills at hair-raising speeds, or are you a fan of rides that are a little more laid-back? Riding is such a personal thing and there’s really no wrong way to hit the trails, as long as you’re being safe and having fun.
With that being said, there are some vehicle names that seem to pop up more than others. For utility vehicles, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably the Polaris Ranger, Honda Pioneer, or Can-Am Defender. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something with a ton of horsepower, your mind might jump to the Polaris RZR XP Turbo S, the Yamaha YXZ, or the new Textron Wildcat XX. Whatever kind of ride you’re seeking, with so many options on the market today, you’re bound to find the machine that’s perfect for you. There’s never been a better time to join the off-road community.
From their very inception (or evolution, we should say), UTVs have represented innovation and versatility. They’ve been employed by the US military, on construction sites, and in gold mines. They’ve proven to be steady workhorses for hunters and farmers. They’ve provided an outlet for thrill seekers who love rock crawling, mud bogging, and trail riding. However you ride, there’s no denying that these machines are here to stay.
Like we said before, it’s important to look back on where you’ve been in order to see where you’re going. In less than one hundred years, we’ve made the leap from amphibious ATV precursors to the futuristic Tesla Cyberquad. Just imagine how much more innovation we’re going to see in our lifetime! Pretty exciting stuff. And what’s even better is knowing that no matter what kind of crazy cool machines get churned out over the next decade or so, SuperATV is always going to be two steps ahead when it comes to customizing those machines to fit your one-of-a-kind lifestyle.
What about you—what was the very first ATV or UTV you remember riding? Better yet, do you own one of the vintage machines mentioned in this article? We’d love to hear from anyone who has restored one of these classics!